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Grizzly bears, black bears, wolves, coyotes, cougars/ mountain lions,bobcats, wolverines, lynx, foxes, fishers and martens are the suite of carnivores that originally inhabited North America after the Pleistocene extinctions. This site invites research, commentary, point/counterpoint on that suite of native animals (predator and prey) that inhabited The Americas circa 1500-at the initial point of European exploration and subsequent colonization. Landscape ecology, journal accounts of explorers and frontiersmen, genetic evaluations of museum animals, peer reviewed 20th and 21st century research on various aspects of our "Wild America" as well as subjective commentary from expert and layman alike. All of the above being revealed and discussed with the underlying goal of one day seeing our Continent rewilded.....Where big enough swaths of open space exist with connective corridors to other large forest, meadow, mountain, valley, prairie, desert and chaparral wildlands.....Thereby enabling all of our historic fauna, including man, to live in a sustainable and healthy environment. - Blogger Rick

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Friday, March 30, 2018

The Stone Walls that you see today in the Northeast and New England woodlands are a unique American architectural "masterpiece that were created by 17th and 18th century colonists as they felled the forest on their farms and homesteads for crops and husbandry...............The rocky soils that were left behind as the last glacier rolled back north 10,000 years ago provided the perfect material for the 100,000 miles of stone wall that still blanket these woodlands(down from the estimated 250,000 miles of wall originally built)............The colonists used the stone to delineate their fields for various crops and grazing as well as marking the boundaries of their property........................."These Stone walls parse the land into finer pieces, creating diverse microclimates and ecosystems and opportunities for creatures of all types, said Robert M. Thorson, a University of Connecticut geology professor, the founder of the Stone Wall Initiative"................"The base of stone walls might be cool and moist, the crevices like tiny caves"................ "The top might be a desert, dry and barren"................. "On one side of a wall might be woods, the other field"...............“Walls sort of divide, create and enforce differences"................... "Every stone in every wall is animated with life"..............."They act as a barrier, collecting fallen leaves and debris which provide stock piles of food and shelter for many small woodland fauna such as mice, chipmunks, squirrels, weasels, spiders, worms, snakes, frogs and salmanders...............And where these creatures are, their predators also abound.............Foxes, Coyotes, Bobcats, Lynx and even Black Bears use the walls as travel lanes, taking advantage of the the extra elevation to help them spot their prey..............."If we do not do all we can to preserve these living stone walls, if they were to disappear, a surge of physical and biological changes would ripple through the landscape"............ "Woodlands would blend together, soil erosion would increase, and billions of creatures would die"..........."Stone walls create a landscape in which history and natural history are one in the same"

Stone Walls
Illustration by Adelaide Tyrol
When you think about the iconic landforms of the Northeast, what comes to mind? The mountains, of course. The lakes. Of course. Rivers? Probably.
But there’s another. Stone walls. An estimated 100,000 miles of them. They might not be as impressive as the Presidential Range or Moosehead Lake, but collectively they make a big impact on the landscape and the creatures who live there.
Stone walls parse the land into finer pieces, creating diverse microclimates and ecosystems and opportunities for creatures of all types, said Robert M. Thorson, a University of Connecticut geology professor, the founder of the Stone Wall Initiative, and the author of three books about New England’s stone walls: Stone by Stone: The Magnificent History in New England’s Stone Walls;  Exploring Stone Walls: A Field Guide to New England’s Stone Walls and Stone Wall Secrets (co-authored with Kristine Thorson.)
In Exploring Stone Walls, he wrote that “when we encounter a stone wall in the deep woods, we instinctively think of the place as being desolate. This is an illusion. Every stone in every wall is animated with life.”

Stone walls literally change things from the soil level on up, Thorson told me in an interview. “Think about shade and sunlight and wind and the implications of that for moisture and temperature. Think about the structure of the wall and the conductivity of the stone relative to the ground. They’re heat pumps and ventilators.”
The base of stone walls might be cool and moist, the crevices like tiny caves. The top might be a desert, dry and barren. On one side of a wall might be woods, the other field. “Walls sort of divide, create and enforce differences,” Thorson said. If you have a wall on a slope it might be capturing soils on the upside, while the soils on the downside might be poorer. “That makes shade or not shade. You have upslope and downslope,” he said.
Animals of all types utilize stone walls — from foxes to chipmunks to salamanders. Cats and foxes use them as travel lanes, while the extra elevation could help them spot prey, or predators. When my friends at Northern Woodlands brought in their game cameras last fall, they had some great shots of a bobcat and a black bear on a stone wall. Yes, a black bear.

Thorson said Blanding’s turtles migrate to breeding sites along stone walls, where the leaf litter is moister and there’s more protection from predators.
“It’s a wall, but it’s also a corridor,” Thorson told me. “You get wet and dry, shady, moist, windward and leeward. It introduces a vertical billboard to the landscape and increases habitat diversity.”
The immensity of the stone wall landform — New England’s stone walls are at least two times the length of the Interstate Highway System — means that is a lot of habitat.
While a single pile of rocks might attract a few chipmunks or white-footed mice, imagine that rodent-friendly habitat chained together for miles. Then think about the minks and snakes, the foxes and owls that prey on those rodents and you see how the effect is multiplied up the food chain. Stone walls can, literally, make our landscape come alive.
“I just think they’ve made the landscape much more interesting…because of the power of plant and animal communities to adapt to the changes they impose,” said Thorson.
When talking about the power of stone walls to attract animal life, Thorson likes to use us as an example. Take a bunch of second graders and assemble them in a field between a pond and a woods edged by a stone wall. Tell them to go find nature and they’ll head for the pond because, well, that’s where they’ve been taught that nature exists. Tell them to go explore, he said, and they’ll head right for the stone wall.

Many of us take stone walls for granted. But they are as vulnerable as anything else to human activity. While there are still an estimated 100,000 miles of them in New England, it’s worthwhile noting that, in 1939 mining engineer Oliver Bowles estimated their combined length at 259,000 miles, according to the Stone Wall Initiative.
If the rest of them were to disappear, “a surge of physical and biological changes would ripple through the landscape,” Thorson wrote in the epilogue to Exploring Stone Walls. Woodlands would blend together, soil erosion would increase, and billions of creatures would die, he wrote. What’s more, we would have lost a part of who we are.
New England is a place, Thorson wrote, where “human activities are so thoroughly blended into the otherwise natural landscape that the distinction between them is moot and meaningless.” Stone walls create, “a landscape in which history and natural history are one in the same.”
Joe Rankin writes on forestry, nature and sustainability. He lives in Maine.

Take Me Outside(to look at the Stone Walls)
Saturday, December 31, 2016; Ruth Smith
The majority of New England’s stone walls were built within a 30- year period from 1810-40. During this time, agriculture was a driving force and most residents were farmers. These intrepid farmers and their ancestors had spent earlier decades cutting down trees to build homes, barns and other structures and opening up land for planting crops and pasturing livestock. Early fences, used to contain cattle and sheep, were made of wood and stumps from the downed trees.

In the early 1800s, Merino sheep were brought into New England and things changed. The great sheep boom began. A worldwide market for Merino wool provided subsistence farmers with a flush of cash. More land was cleared and pastures were created, bordered by sturdy stone walls.
The stone structures were usually as high as a man’s thigh. Then, wooden fences were added on top to bring the barriers to the height necessary to keep sheep from escaping. Census records indicate that in 1840, New Hampshire was home to 600,000 sheep. Surrounding states were part of this movement as well, and it is estimated that over 250,000 miles of stone walls were built in New England and New York during this period of time. The mass of these meandering rock piles is said to be greater than that of the pyramids of Egypt.
It is remarkable to think that the product all of that work of hauling rocks and laying walls, was only used for a few decades. By 1850, New England farms were being abandoned. The great exodus to the west had begun. Farming in deep, rich, rock-free soil of the mid-western prairies was much easier. Thanks to the Erie Canal and expanding railroads the products from those farms could be easily shipped back east. New England’s open farm fields, up to 80 percent of the landscape, began to grow back to forests. Today when we see walls crisscrossing through the woods, it’s interesting to reflect on the fact that the land was not forested when the walls were built.
In addition to being an artifact of our agricultural past, New England stone walls provide a rich habitat for wildlife. They act as a barrier, collecting fallen leaves and debris which provide stock piles of food and shelter for many small woodland fauna. Most stone walls were built without mortar, using gravity and the shape of the stones to hold them together. As a result there are miniature caves and tunnels created in the spaces between the stones that provide ideal shelter for small creatures.
Even in winter when snow covers the ground, the walls are noticeable as they rise above the forest floor. It is worth taking a close look to see what tracks and signs are left as clues of the current residents or visitors. Look for little footprints of mice, chipmunks, squirrels or weasels coming in and out of the crevices. Larger mammals will use the walls as a trail system, leaving tracks along the top of the partition. You may even find signs left by foxes using the old farmer’s boundary wall to declare the boundaries of their territory by depositing scat.

In warmer months, countless invertebrates – insects, worms and spiders – make their homes in the gaps of stone walls. Reptiles such as common garter snakes and wood frogs may also use them for shelter and hibernate beneath them during the winter.
South facing walls, where the snow melts more quickly, absorb the sun, retain the heat of the sun and provide warmth to animals within or near the walls. Snow free stones also reveal a wide variety of lichen and moss that grows on these mineral surfaces.
The farmers who built the great walls of New England are long gone. But their legacy lives on as the remnants of their efforts continue to provide boundaries for territories, shelter for animals and miniature green pastures and add to the diversity of wildlife habitats.


Dave Messineo said...

I'm not sure just where the author got his information but stone walls were not built just to enclose sheep pasture or other livestock pasture. In fact, pasture in the true sense are not bounded by walls. True pasture is not plowable. Plowable land is "meadow" so the rocks line the borders of meadows.
Meadow land is far too valuable to use pasturing animals as it can be used to grow corn and hay. Most fencing on the old farms was intended to keep livestock OUT of the meadows as farmers were perfectly happy to graze the forest.

The walls were begun the very first time these fields were plowed. If the stones were already on the surface as they are in many areas, the stones were moved to the edges and piled there. After original clearing the stones "come up" anew every spring or are turned up when plowing. Some of the walls in areas of glacial moraine are twenty feet or more across the top

Generally the practice which continues today is to draw a "stone boat" ( a wooden sled) behind a horse or tractor after plowing and workers including the children would pile the stones on the "stone boat" to then pile them at the field edges.

Over the years the walls got higher and some were improved and many are just piled loosely. So, basically the stones weren't gathered to be walls but dumped on field edges simply as a place to put them out of the way. I have no doubt that stone walls were later used as fence to keep livestock contained but the old walls you see today took many decades to grow.

I have plowed fields and gathered the stones before planting and my neighbors here in New York still clear stones every spring after plowing.

Rick Meril said...

Hi Dave,,,,,,,,,,,,,good to hear from you.

From esteemed Colonial ecological history Professor William Cronon and his classic "CHANGES IN THE LAND--

"In Colonial America, fences were initially made of wood, until the local woods was exhausted".."They were eventually replaced by rocks that repeated plowing turned up"...........The final switch to stone walls came as a way of ending the labor cost of replacing wooden fences that would rot after 6 years"...also an attempt to conserve the dwindling forest resources"....."One inevitable consequence of the English agricultural system that mixed the raising of crops with the keeping of animals was the necessirt to separate the two, or else the animals would eat the crops".........

David Messineo said...

Thanks for the quote....

Here on my farm the fences were also made of wood, usually hemlock ....replaced in later years with barbed wire. Check out the board fences in some photos I posted of past and present. Hold mouse over photo for the same scene around 1900.

We also had stone fences which were gathered by the state when our road became a state highway. The state brought in a stone crusher and Italian immigrants and any stone walls near the new highway became crushed stone for the road bed.

My point is that the stone piles grew over many years and in some cases became walls when enough stone was piled. Farmers took advantage of stones that were accumulated slowly over the years. No farmer could expend the time and energy to gather stones and build stone walls in a short time period.

Here in NY we also had the great expansion of sheep farming. Here in NY, sheep farming was the cause for the initiation of dog licenses. Free running dogs would kill helpless sheep in great numbers, so the dog license funded the payment of damages for sheep owners that lost sheep to dogs. Still today if a farmer experiences livestock damages from dogs, the county will send out an assessor to verify and pay out damages.

Rick Meril said...


good information provided by you as always...........appreciated!